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15 October 2014
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A Most Unusual Evacuation

by BBC Radio Norfolk Action Desk

Contributed by 
BBC Radio Norfolk Action Desk
People in story: 
Norman Wills, General Alfred M Gruenther the Supreme Commander Allied Forces in Europe
Location of story: 
Lyme Bay, Slapton Sands Devon
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A4110139
Contributed on: 
24 May 2005

This contribution to People’s War was received by the Action Desk at BBC Radio Norfolk and submitted to the website with the permission and on behalf of Mr Norman Wills
In November 1943 my Father received a letter from the Admiralty telling us that we had to give up our home. One usually thinks of children being evacuated without their families, however, in our case the whole family was evacuated with everything we possessed, furniture, sheds and even the chickens! Although we only moved a few miles it had a great effect on us and our whole village of Chillington in South Devonshire.
We moved eight miles away to share a house in the village of Aveton Gifford. We had no real idea why we had to move, except perhaps, that our village and others near Start Bay were to be used as a military practice area.
American military vehicles soon began rolling through Aveton Gifford on their way from Plymouth to Start Bay and thousands of American soldiers marched through in single file on each side of the road. When they saw children the Americans would sometimes stop and make pancakes and we would beg them for some “Gum Chum”, but the Americans marching through the village often wanted bread and they would give us as much as 2/6d (12 ½ p), a lot of money, as a 2 lb loaf of bread only cost 5d (2p). To us the Americans seemed very well off and we envied their canned food, but, as we were in the country we managed to get enough fresh food and sometimes even Devonshire clotted cream on Sundays.
I really disliked my new primary school, where the headmaster was very strict. One day I asked the boy sitting next to me to stop talking, and for this I was given one stroke of the cane. I also remember the frightening experience of seeing local children being given several strokes of the cane for stealing rabbits from gin traps.
However my main goal at Aveton Gifford was learning to ride my Mother’s large 28 inch wheel bicycle.
On what was my 8th birthday, 6th June 1944, the American, Canadian and British forces left Devonshire and shores of Southern England for the Normandy landings in France.
In October 1944, we returned to our village of Chillington. The weeds were a metre high and the trees and bushes laden with fruit. We had to be very careful where we trod, for the Americans had left unexploded ammunition on the ground. Some of the other items they left behind for example tools, equipment and canned goods were very useful to us, however we learnt that the Americans had also suffered their fair share of hardship during the War as well. We understood that American soldiers and sailors died from friendly fire and were buried on a farm in the Parish of Blackawton, some ten miles inland from Slapton Sands. Later it transpired that 749 Americans died in Lyme Bay from German torpedoes and these were the bodies that were buried in a mass grave on this farm. This incident happened on 28th April, 1944 when nine German “E” boats broke our defences and attacked eight American landing craft in Lyme Bay on their 33 mile “D” Day training journey for a landing on Slapton Sands. Two landing craft were sunk and another limped back into Dartmouth harbour.
In November, 1987 a monument was erected to the American servicemen at Torcross on Slapton Sands.
Just after the war the Americans built a tall monument on Slapton Sands near the site of the former pre-war Sands Hotel. This was to all of us who had been evacuated from the area in order for the Americans to prepare for the “D” Day landings.
In 1954, I was invited by the Lord Lieutenant of Devon to the US Monument on Slapton Sands and by Captain WG Crawford to the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth to meet the Supreme Commander, Allied Forces in Europe, General Alfred M Gruenther. As I shook hands with General Gruenther, I told him that I was about to join up in the RAF to do my National Service and he said “Good, we welcome you”.

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Message 1 - How many Americans died at Slapton Sands and where are they buried?

Posted on: 28 December 2005 by norwil

I have been studying various sources and this is what I found:
A newspaper article of about Early September, 1944, used in A L Clamp Exercises Tiger and Fabius says: "A clergyman member (of Kingsbridge Rural District Council said he had heard that in one village a field had been used as a cemetery."
Richard Collier in D-Day. Orion,1992, said that 749 U S service men were buried in an unmarked mass grave inland from Slapton Sands, on what was later the sheep farm of Nolan Tope. He said that a Dorothy Seekings had seen the bodies laid out and was sworn to secrecy.
Ray Freeman in We Remember D-Day, Dartmouth History Research Group, 1994 quotes from Richard Bass, Precious Cargo (after saying that the official U S toll of dead was 749) "Statements by men of the 146th and 147th Q M Co who on April 28th (1944) on the orders of the 605th Graves Registration Company, took the bodies from near Weymouth, Dorset, to Brookside Cemetery in Londan." They said that there were 1,040 dead all told.
Craig Smith on www.bbc.co.uk/dna/ww2/A3565587 speaks of his father, William A Smith, signalman of the motor launch ML303 stationed at Portland Harbour moving to the Slapton Sands area to pick up U S bodies on 28 April, 1944 and taking them to Portland. American ambulances took them, it was rumoured to a local field near Portland and temporily buried to keep it a secret.
This seems to link in with Richard Bass's information.
Ray Freeman also said that the Lyme Bay incident did not stop the planned assault on Slapton Sands. He also said :"In all about 200 were killed in this attack in addition to those lost on the torpedoed landing ships."
So were these 200, the man buried in the sheep farm of Nolan Tope, which I assume to be in Blackawton, 5 miles NNW of Slapton Sands which we at the time, or just after, understood were the result of U S friendly fire incidents?

Message 1 - Slapton Sands American Memorial

Posted on: 19 January 2006 by norwil

As the BBC is to stop contributions to this site soon, I thought I should write out the wording on this memorial.
It has been enjoyable writing the material on this subjeCt and I hope that people all over the world will have found it interesting and worthwhile.
This is the inscription on the Memorial to the People of the South Hams in Devonshire, England:
THIS MEMORIAL WAS PRESENTED BY THE UNITED STATES ARMY AUTHORITIES TO THE PEOPLE OF THE SOUTH HAMS WHO GENEROUSLY LEFT THEIR HOMES TO PROVIDE A BATTLE PRACTICE AREA FOR THE SUCCESSFUL ASSAULT IN NORMANDY IN JUNE 1944. THEIR ACTIONS RESULTED IN THE SAVING OF MANY HUNDREDS OF LIVES AND CONTRIBUTED IN NO SMALL MEASURE TO THE SUCCESS OF THE OPERATION.
THE AREA INCLUDED THE VILLAGES OF BLACKAWTON CHILLINGTON EAST ALLINGTON SLAPTON STOKENHAM STRETE AND TORCROSS TOGETHER WITH MANY OUTLYING FARMS & HOUSES.

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